A sad-eyed European man sits in a tasteful hanging chair, a gorgeous autumnal forest stretching out through the window behind him. He locks eyes with the video camera set up to record him, and after much consideration, speaks. “My name is Max Isaksen… By the time you watch this, I will be dead”.
So begins Suicide Tourist, the new film from director Jonas Alexander Arnby and writer Rasmus Birch, and their second full-length collaboration after 2014’s When Animals Dream. It’s an attention-grabbing opening, charged with a classic noir-like intrigue that the film unfortunately fails to build upon.
The phenomenon of suicide tourism – in which individuals wishing to be assisted in taking their own life travel from their country of residence to another where such a practice is legal – has been hotly debated ever since the concept was first introduced to mass culture. Pundits on either side of the debate continue to contest each other over the ethics of euthanasia, the agency a person has over ending their own life, and whether people should be allowed to commit to such a process if it is not legal within their own nation. With such a morally ambiguous subject at hand, a film exploring these divides should make for gripping, nuanced storytelling, probing at questions that few have the answers for.
It’s a shame then that Suicide Tourist is completely unconcerned with asking such questions. Arnby’s film instead opts to play out as a weak-kneed thriller revolving around one of the most infuriating reality versus fantasy mysteries in recent memory. Almost every decision made in this chilly Danish concoction will have you crying out for the road not taken, making it a wholly unsatisfying cinematic experience.
Max Isaksen (played by Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – still dashing behind a serial-killer moustache and glasses combo) is a life insurance salesman recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Rather than live in fear that his tumour will alter his personality into something unrecognisable before ultimately killing him, Max chooses to leave home in the dead of night and end his life at Hotel Aurora: a retreat hidden in the snow capped mountains of Norway that specialises in carrying out assisted suicides for its various clientele. During his stay, Max soon realises that there may be more sinister aspects at play within the elegant confines of the hotel.
Much of the narrative drive of the first act is stalled by the decision to reveal the narrative out of sequence, cutting back and forth between Max’s introduction to the hotel and what lead him to make the decision to go there in the first place first place. At certain points it feels as though the film is finally ready to engage with its own central narrative — concerning Max’s exploration how he wants his final moments to play out — only to flash back to another moment of Max’s past, doing little to flesh out his character beyond what the audience learns in the first ten minutes. Coster-Waldau gives an admirably restrained performance as Max, but with so little in terms of genuine characterisation or personality he can’t help but flounder in such lifeless material.
The blandness stretches on: the film lacks almost any interpersonal conflict for nearly forty minutes of its ninety minute runtime. Instead, we are treated to one man’s internal struggle about making a decision that will greatly affect Max’s wife Lærke (Tuva Nuvotny), along with many others whom we are never shown. Laerke seems to be infatuated with Max, never looking at him with anything other than adoration despite the stress Max’s illness puts both of them under. When Max ultimately chooses to leave without telling his wife, the decision comes off more as a selfish man’s inability to communicate with his partner than a thoughtful one trying to keep his significant other from more pain. The lack of conflict that results means the film spins its thematic wheels during the first half of the film, with no conflicting points of view brought up that could have further explored the heavy questions that could have arisen from the situation.
When the film finally settles on exploring the hotel, we meet a cast of paper-thin supporting characters (Robert Arayamo as a charismatic but hopeless young patient, and a minor appearance from Kate Ashfield as an actress who performs the role of the mother of hotel patrons during their dying moments) who are all inexplicably drawn to Max, despite his wet blanket personality and repeated acts of rudeness. However, even his brashness trait is inconsistent, as demonstrated when Max suddenly reveals himself to be tactful and wonderfully empathic. There are multiple instances in the film where one of his fellow suicide tourists spontaneously bursts into tears in Max’s arms – despite him walking out mid-conversation on them just hours earlier.
Luckily, the weak thrust of the narrative is compensated for by the luxurious cinematography from Neils Thalsum, who frames the film in a distinctly European winter crispness. With a location as beautiful as the Hotel Aurora it’s hard to go wrong, but Thalsum makes sure to get the most out of every snowy vista and swooping line of Scandinavian architecture. (The real life hotel at which much of the film was shot will be sure to get a big upswing in the more regular kind of tourism once the Instagram crowd get their hands on stills from this film.) Standout sequences include a rain streaked journey to the airport, with Coster-Waldau’s face bathed in gorgeous hues from streetlights that fly past his car, and Max’s meeting with the hotel’s shadowy boss, Frank (Jan Bijovet), who amuses himself by hitting golf balls into the stunning gorge below, which provides the perfect backdrop for Bijovet’s quiet menace in one of the only sequences in the film with genuine conflict.
Mikkel Hess’ music is never less than engaging, offering a heady mix of atmospheric synth work and reserved orchestration. However, it can sometimes clash with the more sombre tone of the picture. Max’s early attempts at suicide, for example, are soundtracked to a vaguely comedic plonking on the piano keys. The intentionality of this disconnect is hard to gauge as the spacious editing lets such scenes play straight, giving little clue as to whether there is some macabre humour in Max’s trials.
All the pretty sights and sounds in the world can’t compensate for the film’s total stinker of a third act, which is so mind-bogglingly baffling that it would almost certainly go down in infamy if this film wasn’t destined to be swept under the rug. The ‘protagonist questions their sanity’ trope is used in such an ill thought-out and unrewarding way that, when combined with the film’s sudden late shift into action-thriller territory, creates such a powerful sense of whiplash it left me genuinely dumbstruck. The film answers almost none of the thematic or narrative questions it built up over the course of its run, with the ambiguous mechanics of how the hotel remains operational (and legal) of greater concern than the mystery elements that the filmmakers actually put in the film.
Suicide Tourist has been described by its production company Snowglobe as “its most ambitious project to date”, and if so, it is the worst kind of ambitious. It’s willing to confound its audience while also being too intellectually insecure to tackle the genuinely interesting questions that lie at the heart of its concept. A dose of excessive European cool ensures that this film is bound to receive an equally chilly reception.
Suicide Tourist will be playing on 25 February at Lido Hawthorn as part of Fantastic Film Festival Australia.
James Walsh is a Screenwriting student from Melbourne and is self appointed as Bong Joon-Ho’s biggest fan.